Dir. J.J. Abrams
We open with a hanging safety sign inside a mid-state Ohio steel mill that keeps track of the number of consecutive days without an accident. As the shot lingers, a worker stands up on a ladder and grimly sets the counter back from several hundred to one. This is what you might call a visual metaphor, or an expressive visual style of storytelling; a slightly clammy technique which was practically copyrighted by late-'70s/mid-'80s era Steven Spielberg.
It is also no accident the style -- as particular and datedly familiar as a celeb portrait by Annie Leibovitz -- cops that of the American Popcorn Master, who also acts as a producer on this film, his own homage. Writer/Director J.J. Abrams has long been a Spielberg disciple, and here, with this loving throwback, he gets to copy his hero to his heart's content. The result is a kind of mash-up of two (or more) of Spielberg's greatest hits, the unseen deadly monster from Jaws combined with the sweet innocence of pre-adolescent friends from E.T. As you might imagine, the fit is not what you might call seamless.
The setting is a small Ohio town in 1979. A group of boys, lead by Joe (Joel Courtney), whose mother has recently died, and his best friend, Charles (Riley Griffiths), are determined to finish their super 8 zombie film in time for a Cleveland festival. One night they sneak out with gear in tow to film a scene near a railway station between their hero, played by Martin (Gabriel Basso), and his 'wife,' played by Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), an adolescent beauty upon whom both Joe and Charles have a crush. As they film their scene, a train approaches, and a truck suddenly leaps onto the tracks, ramming the front car and causing a massive series of explosions and twisting-metal shrapnel. Thus is released a ravenous alien creature that the Air Force was covertly trying to transport across the country, who goes on to snatch people, attract dogs from all over the county and lurk around taking pot shots at military convoys. The boys have inadvertently filmed this monster emerging from the wreckage of the train and thus get embroiled in the convoluted goings on between the local police, lead by Joe's father (Kyle Jackson), a deputy, and the evil Air Force commander Nelec (Noah Emmerich), as they try to re-capture the alien.
Along the way, Abrams sees fit to cop many of Spielberg's pet moves: The sweeping crane movements, the trap-focus tracking, the quick-hitting naturalist dialogue between the young friends, even the slow, slow reveal of the monster until it finally snaps into view for the final act. Unfortunately, even though the film has a nostalgic kind of pace, -- a welcome diversion from the fast, jittery, hyper-cutting that dominates much of the current summer scene -- Abrams has forgotten perhaps the single most important lesson of the Spielberg oeuvre: If you draw attention in such a way to your big reveal, it had better be worth it (see, Jaws or Close Encounters. Here, when we finally do see the creature head-on, it's a dull CGI mish-mash, a combination of one of the walking trees from Lord of the Rings and a tarantula, anything but gripping. The problems don't stop there, actually. There are enough plot holes and inconsistencies to fill a mothership (why, for example, doesn't the alien just rebuild his massive ship from the start instead of waiting for the three-act arc to end?). Abrams was clearly hoping for a more personal tribute to his hero, but the film so stridently attempts for Spielbergian 'magic' you instead feel every bit of the weight of its mawkish construction.